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Stick and Poke

Words and Photography Zarah Cheng


I felt like I was in a movie when I went to go take photos of Jenny giving her friend, Nathan, a stick and poke.  She threw down her keys to me from the window of the second floor and as I walked into the building, a black cat followed me in.  When I got into the apartment, a band called Gandalf was playing in the background as Jenny showed me the work she had done so far.  This is the kind of environment that most stick and pokes are done in: carefree and amongst friends.  If I was still considering the stick and poke stigma, Jenny quickly debunked it.  She took extreme care in making sure that her work environment was sterile and her work was comparable to ones I’ve seen from a shop.  This ain’t no Andrew W.K./Ke$ha safety pin-administered stick and poke (look it up).  This is the real deal. So prepare to have all your notions about stick and poke flipped on its head, shaken like a dirty martini, thrown into a garburator and served to you in the form of a vicious cat with a knife.

How does stick and poke work?

There are many different techniques that people use to do stick and poke or hand poked tattoos all over the world, ranging from bamboo tattoo to a thread wrapped needle. What they all have in common is that they are machine-less. So every single mark requires one poke from the needle to form an image. In my practice, I use tattoo gun needles but without the gun, dip it in the ink, and do a ton of tiny pokes by hand, sort of like pointillism to draw the image.

How did you get started with doing stick and poke tattoos?

I guess me and some friends just started out by doing little stuff on each other for fun. And they turned out so nice that more friends wanted drawings and started to ask me to do bigger images on them and it sort of just progressed from here.

I’ve seen some pretty rough stick and pokes online.  How were the first few tattoos you did?

Oh my gosh, there are some very terrifying horrific ones online! Surprisingly the first ones I ever did were really nice. I was so nervous to begin with permanently stamping someone’s body and the possibility of messing up, but I just did the best I possibly could. I really care about what I’m putting on people’s skin and so in the beginning, I just took my time and made sure they were as perfect as they could be. 

Your line work is extremely fine and precise.  Are people ever surprised that it’s not done with a machine?

Yes, people are often surprised because of the stigma behind stick and pokes being a drunken homemade tattoo, but people are surprised when they find out it’s a stick and poke.

People usually think of friends getting super wasted and “scratching” each other with safety pins when they think of stick and poke.  Have you experienced any negativity towards your work because of this stigma?

Not really, mostly my experiences have been quite pleasant when they see my work. And I don’t really surround myself with negative people. 

The whole stick and poke culture seems to have become a lot more normalized over the past few years.  What do you think has contributed to this growth?

I think as more awesome and innovative stick and poke artists become visible on social media like Instagram and such, people are beginning to understand the history behind the method and learn that there is more to it. And as it becomes more recognized, so does the work of impressive artists out there that are keeping the tradition and origin of body marking alive. 

Why do you think most people get stick and poke tattoos? 

Perhaps it feels less intimidating than going into the shop and people feel like they can get something little and simple. And there seems to be a growing trend and interest in the aesthetic of stick and poke and its larger role within DIY culture and creative communities.  I know when I got my first stick and poke, it was not only a fun and rewarding experience but felt like friendships and bonds were formed. 

High Fashion models, such as Cole Mohr (Marc Jacobs), are known to have stick and poke tattoos.  Do you think publicity like this elevates or glamourizes this form of tattoo art, almost to the point of becoming a trend?

I think publicity like that maybe lets people know that it’s not just drunk people stabbing each other with sharp things. It could be that that’s the case with Cole Mohr though, who knows. I wouldn’t call it a trend but you could argue that tattoos in general have become a trend in the last 20 years. It’s rare to find somebody without a tattoo of some kind these days! 

Tattoo shops can become pretty defensive about tattoo culture and the whole idea of apprenticeship as a rite of passage.  Have you experienced any backlash so far by bypassing that step?

No, not at all. I have a lot of friends who are tattoo artists and work at shops and they have been nothing but supportive. Many of them have even pushed and encouraged me to pursue it more as its own art form. I have never had any negativity at all. 

Do you prefer a particular aesthetic or type of design?  What is it?

I love doing portraits of animals and textbook diagram line drawings. I really like the look of bold black lines and negative space and try to emulate some of that into my work. Whenever I need inspiration, I look at 40’s and 50’s American tattoo styles as well as old traditional stick and poke styles. I just love making little funny creatures and enjoy collaborating with different people and the ideas they have.

Is there anything you would say to the people out there who still dismiss stick n poke as an art form?

I would say that the oldest evidence of tattoo body art was found on a mummy dating back from 6000 BC. Cultures all around the world have been doing beautiful intricate machine-less tattooing for centuries and still continue today. In my opinion it creates a different energy and style to the whole thing and is an appreciation of the old ways. I think it’s really neat, and I have seen some beautiful work and hope this tradition continues as tattoo culture grows as its own art form.